Chinook Therapeutics bags $65M to bring precision medicine to the kidney

If you ask a nephrologist, kidney diseases are treated today in much the same way they were 30 years ago, said Eric Dobmeier, the Seattle Genetics veteran at the helm of Chinook Therapeutics. 

“They say, all I can do is reduce blood pressure and hope they don’t progress to end-stage renal disease and need a transplant soon,” Dobmeier told FierceBiotech. 

Chinook is looking to change that—and it’s raised $65 million from Versant Ventures, Apple Tree Partners and Samsara BioCapital to do so. The Vancouver, Canada-based biotech wants to do for kidney disease what precision medicine has done for cancer treatment. It will use that capital to push “several” precision medicines for rare kidney diseases into the clinic by 2021. 

There has been a dearth of investment and innovation in kidney disease, mostly because it was poorly understood. Regulatory agencies traditionally required large trials to approve kidney drugs, leading studies to fail because they tested drugs in huge, heterogeneous populations of patients rather than zeroing in on patient groups whose disease stemmed from particular drivers, such as a genetic mutation. Dobmeier compared it to treating stage 4 cancer—all types—with one drug. 

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What’s more, kidney disease has been treated as a symptom of other disease, as a symptom of high blood pressure, or a symptom of diabetes, rather than a disease in its own right, Dobmeier said. 

“And because there was always the backstop of dialysis and transplant, not as much investment has gone into understanding the disease biology in this area as it has in other areas,” he said. 

That said, Dobmeier thinks the field is poised for a resurgence. It’s a combination of a better understanding of kidney biology, translational science and the regulatory environment. Last year, the FDA said it would accept certain surrogate endpoints for the approval of kidney drugs, which reduces the size and duration of clinical trials required for kidney drugs to reach approval. 

Incubated at Versant’s Inception Science discovery engine in Vancouver, Chinook will use technology including single-cell RNA sequencing and new translational models such as kidney organoids to discover and develop new drugs for kidney disease. Dobmeier did not disclose which diseases it’s going after first, but the company said in a statement that it would focus on rare, severe disorders. 

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“These programs may also have utility in more common kidney diseases, expanding the potential patient populations,” the company said in the statement. 

Chinook draws its team of drug hunters and developers from Inception and has stacked its scientific advisory board with experts, Dobmeier said. Its targets come from various sources, including its academic collaborators and scientific literature. The company expects to pinpoint yet more targets using single-cell RNA sequencing thanks to co-founder and advisory board chair Benjamin Humphreys, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the division of nephrology at Washington University in St. Louis. 

Chinook could even find itself resurrecting old drugs that were written off as failures. 

“With a better understanding of disease biology and patient stratification methods, those drugs may be more promising … Or it may have been that the drug was not properly designed for its target—the chemistry may not have been the most effective for the type of effect it was hoping to have,” Dobmeier said.  

The company has about 25 staffers working on its programs, which include two in the lead optimization stage that are about a year or so away from the clinic. In addition to working in several earlier-stage programs, Chinook is also “actively looking for in-licensing opportunities” from both academia and the biopharma industry. 

“If we do in-license something, then I think that would require more team-building as well as capital raising,” Dobmeier said.